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Jax Daily Record Friday, Feb. 1, 201912:50 PM EST

Serving those with service animals

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Real estate professionals learn about the laws that govern service and emotional support animals.
by: Jay Schlichter Staff Writer

In an age when someone tried to bring a peacock onto a commercial flight, determining what is and isn't a service animal isn't as simple as one might think.

In fact, the federal, state and local laws that either allow or prohibit the specially trained animals can be confusing for those who have to assist the owners.

That is why the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors offers a class to its thousands of members to help the region's real estate professionals understand how to deal with people who want to buy or rent a residence and bring Fido or Fifi along, whether that animal is allowed or not.

On Jan. 16, Cynthia DeLuca taught a group of about 50 real estate agents, brokers and property managers about the differences between the various laws, differences between service animals and emotional support animals, how the laws apply to the real estate industry and the only questions they are allowed to ask an animal's owner.

Cynthia Deluca

“In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: One, is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? And two, what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” said DeLuca, a certified real estate instructor from DeLand.

However, DeLuca said real estate professionals are not allowed to request  documentation, require the animal to demonstrate its task or inquire about the person's disability.

All of those rules, including that dogs are the only animals allowed to be classified as service animals, was established in 1990 as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law requires the dog to be trained and provide a task that the disabled owner cannot accomplish.

For example, a dog that reminds its owner to take medication or protects its owner during a seizure is a service animal, but a dog that helps an owner with depression would not qualify.

The federal law also overrides almost every other law and rule that may be enacted, because inferior entities are allowed to enhance and add onto an existing federal law, but not take away rights.

Therefore, a state, city or homeowners association is prohibited from restricting a service-animal owner from buying or renting a place, DeLuca said.

Unfortunately, DeLuca said, the law has been abused, as has been seen in  media reports with some people paying for and printing fake certificates from disreputable websites and attempting to take their pets almost everywhere.

Many of the real estate professionals in attendance expressed concern that a pet owner can lie and claim that the pet is a service animal, but DeLuca said nothing can be done other than asking the two questions allowed by law.

For example, DeLuca said Miami is dealing with a problem related to the city's ordinance that prohibits pit bulls. After the city passed the law, people who owned pit bulls rapidly applied and obtained certification that their pets are service animals, even though they are not.

In response to the laws and requests of animal owners, many companies are adopting new rules that allow only certain animals, like Southwest Airlines, which has stated that only dogs and cats will be allowed with their owners on their planes.

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